But although I miss faraway destinations, what I miss most on a daily basis are my places — the coffee shops I loved to write in, the restaurants and bars where I’d unwind with my friends. One of the places my kids and I miss most is the public library.
For the past 10 years our local library has been the Bexley Public Library in Bexley, Ohio. It might as well be “Cheers”; everyone knows our names. And we know theirs, too.
Before the pandemic, we visited the library several times a week. Sometimes I’d go alone, walking the several blocks there from my house to pick up books on reserve — maybe collections by some of my favorite poets, like Traci Brimhall or Jericho Brown, or a novel I’ve been waiting in a long queue to read. I’d check out DVDs and Blu-rays and surprise my son and daughter with them on one of our Friday movie nights (I’ve been introducing them to the classics of my ’80s childhood, from “The Goonies” to “Indiana Jones”). Once my daughter begged for a board game, and I lugged the big box home. It was worth it.
Usually I’d wait and take the kids to the library with me, because they loved to pick out their own books and movies. The children’s section is on the basement level, where you can look through the windows and see people’s shoes as they walk in the small courtyard outside. We’d descend the stairs together — or take the elevator when one of the kids was still in a stroller — and round the corner into a wonderland of books, puzzles and toys.
When my kids were very young, I would take them to baby and toddler story time. We’d walk in and immediately be greeted — yes, by name — by one of the librarians: Marilyn, Bryan, Kathryn, Victoria. I’d sit with my son or daughter in my lap, and we’d listen to stories and sing songs together. The librarian would play children’s music on an iPod and pass out maracas and jingle bells. And at the end there would be parachute time, the babies crawling underneath as the bright colors billowed over them.
Those early parenting years were not easy for me. But I could show up at the library — sometimes unshowered, with a child who’d refused to sleep more than an hour at a stretch the night before — and we were welcomed. My son could play in the puppet theater or build with magnetic tiles. My daughter could curl up on a couch with a book she’d picked herself, without (ahem) parental intrusion.
Thirty-some years ago, I was just like them. Some of my own earliest memories are going to another central Ohio library — the Westerville Public Library — with my mother and younger sisters. I must have been very young, because I remember picking out some of the Blue Bug books by Virginia Poulet: “Blue Bug Goes to School,” “Blue Bug’s Beach Party” and, yes, “Blue Bug Goes to the Library.” As a teenager, I ventured into the poetry section and into the shelves of cassettes and CDs. I could check out Neil Young, the Violent Femmes, the Cocteau Twins. I have always devoured music the same way I’ve devoured books, so having both in the same building — and for free! — was incredible.
Over the years, I’ve been asked many times how I became a writer. How does one become a writer? I’m reminded of a quote by the writer James Baldwin: “The terrible thing about being a writer is that you don’t decide to become one, you discover that you are one.” I love this idea of excavating something that was always inside you — finding it, dusting it off and holding it up to the light. But for the record, I don’t think it’s a terrible thing at all. It’s a wonderful surprise, to discover you’re a writer.
I think we become readers before we discover we’re writers, and we become readers by being exposed to literature early and often. The public library makes this possible, free of charge. Public libraries are where readers — and, therefore, writers — are born.
A couple of years ago, one of the children’s librarians at the Bexley Public Library made a wall display of the last sentence of my poem “Good Bones”: “You could make this place beautiful.” So when my kids and I go downstairs to find “Magic Treehouse” or “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” books for my second-grader or novels for my tween, we see those words on the wall by the librarian’s desk. It touches me every time.
Now something else at the library touches me when I see it: the “Together We Will See It Through” banner hanging on the front door since lockdown began. I choked up the first time I noticed it.
Together we will see this dark, difficult time through — and on the other side, we will gather in our favorite places again. My kids and I will walk back to the library, head downstairs and round the corner to see the faces we know. Maybe “You could make this place beautiful” will still be on the wall. My son and daughter will be thrilled to be let loose in the stacks again, choosing their own books, and I’ll probably catch up with the librarians, my arms full of poetry and movies. When we leave, I’ll say, “See you soon,” because of course we will.
Maggie Smith is the author of four books, most recently “Keep Moving: Notes on Loss, Creativity, and Change.”